AoC Toolbox | Truth: A Better Way to Talk About Ourselves (Episode 648)

Stories are woven so deeply into our everyday lives that our experiences and the embellishments we (often unintentionally) add to them are usually indistinguishable. Here’s a better way to talk about ourselves that doesn’t obscure the shine of the authentic with the fabrications of the fiction.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Our lives are stories — but are we being honest when we retell these stories?
  • Understand the seduction of self-mythology and how to resist its embellishments.
  • The authentic story may not seem as interesting to us as the invented one — but it’s likely to have more of an impact when we share it.
  • Know when bridging the two versions of our story puts a polish on the authentic rather than dulling it with the obfuscations of the invention.
  • Learn how to tell when others are giving you their invented story — and how to coax the authentic from them.
  • And so much more…

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Let me tell you a quick story.

(Spoiler alert: It’s about me, and it’s awesome.)

I was an only child with a preternatural curiosity about technology, security, and other people.

I did well in school — always have — but I didn’t really like high school, so I ended up going to school in East Germany.

After that, I traveled through a bunch of countries while attending the University of Michigan, where I did well enough to get into Michigan Law.

During law school I started the podcast that would become The Art of Charm, which was really a side hobby a friend (who became my business partner) and I pursued for the fun of it. (Who knew it would blow up one day?)

That’s when I landed a job on Wall Street, but I hated it. So when the recession hit, I was gently laid off, which gave me time to really focus on building AoC.

Ten years, thousands of alumni, and tens of millions of downloads later, The Art of Charm is a leading self-help podcast and a thriving coaching company, and we’re still growing every day.

It’s really as simple as that…

…except that it isn’t.

What I just shared with you is the Story of My Life in 60 seconds, a version of the story most self-help books and business blogs tell us to have ready at a moment’s notice.

It’s the synopsis of life that we share in job interviews (“So, tell me about yourself”), on first dates (“How’d you end up doing that?”), and on panels, websites, and retreats (“A little bit about me…”).

It’s the version of ourselves that the world keeps asking for.

It’s the version of ourselves we love to share.

And it’s total bullsh*t.

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More About This Show

Why We Tell These Awesome Lies

We humans live through stories.

The little dramas of our daily commute (“You won’t believe what happened to me in traffic today”), the epic journeys of our professional lives (“It all comes down to this promotion — if I can beat out Jay for the job”), the tense dialogues of our personal conflicts (“I’m the one who’s still trying. You’re the one who decided to give up!”) — all of these stories are woven so deeply into our everyday lives that our experiences and the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences are usually indistinguishable.

Which, let me be clear, isn’t inherently bad. We’re wired for storytelling for a reason.

The One Big Narrative of all our lives — which is always some version of Me vs. the World — makes us the hero in the ongoing pursuit to survive in a universe that is basically designed to kill us. A hero, by definition, has a goal, and that goal is to survive in order to leave a mark, which is exactly what our highly specialized brain is designed to do. And when you think about how we build and communicate tens of thousands of years of human experience — survival strategies, cultural rituals, historical lessons, scientific knowledge — well, you can’t find a better medium than a good story.

It’s no surprise, then, that a big part of what we teach here at AoC is storytelling. We’ve told you how to tell a great story. We’ve discussed how to talk about yourself without sounding like an a-hole. I’ve talked about my own story countless times on the podcast, which now has thousands of stories from hundreds of people whose narratives have changed our lives.

So I’m not hating on storytelling. Not by a long shot. I believe we need stories — meaningful ones, useful ones — more than ever.

But after years of interviewing people about their lives, I’ve realized that there’s one story that’s actually pretty dangerous: the Story We Tell About Ourselves to Other People.

The Seduction of Self-Mythology

What a good story does, really, is condense a massive amount of information into a consumable and shareable form.

Its primary purpose isn’t accuracy, but entertainment; and when it is accurate, it’s only accurate to the extent that the story requires in order to remain relevant. As a result, most stories gloss over the banal and nonessential, and instead focus on the Most Interesting Parts (or MIPs, because who doesn’t love a useless acronym?) — the stuff that will keep your audience engaged.

Hitchcock said that cinema is just life with the boring parts cut out. You could say the same thing about the stories we tell about ourselves.

When it comes to the story of our own lives, we’re more like novelists, not journalists. We’re not reading from our confessional journals, but recounting a polished story we’ve rehearsed over years.

So a bio becomes a highlight reel of pedigree and accomplishments.

An interview becomes a positive retelling of challenge and responsibility.

A first date becomes a clever exchange of traits and opinions.

But none of these, really, is the truth.

If they were, they wouldn’t be stories. They’d be a laundry list of facts.

And a lot of those facts would be be boring.

A lot of them would be fuzzy.

Some might be confusing.

A bunch would be embarrassing.

If we really told the full story of our lives, the details might still make us look interesting. But they’d also make us look silly, out of control, and messy.

They’d fail to accomplish our goal with a good story, which is to impress, to attract, to reassure, to sell.

Because most of the stories we hear about people’s success are nothing more than clever myth-making: a way of reconfiguring their past as they wish to remember it, shaping it into a compelling and effective narrative, and weaponizing it into a personal propaganda tool.

That story might be Rags to Riches, Rising from the Ashes, One Yes after a Thousand Nos, Crazy Till I Wasn’t, or any one of the familiar narratives we’ve heard from our heroes.

And these stories aren’t just a helpful version of the truth, edited for entertainment but still mostly accurate. In many cases, they’re straight-up fictions people spin from the threads of their memory, delusion, and bias that bear little resemblance to the actual struggles the person went through!

We live through story.

Which means we live through fiction — other people’s as well as our own.

We pay a pretty steep price for that fiction, and that price is the truth.

The truth about what it takes to become great.

If we accept the myths we hear from other people at face value, then we conflate their mythical version of triumph with actual success. We start to assume that our lives should be just like theirs — that our challenges should be as surmountable, our pedigree as attractive, our success as inevitable.

But that’s not how life works.

We need more accurate stories more than ever, so we can understand what actual success requires. Otherwise, we’ll remain stuck in a hall of mirrors created by a culture obsessed with hero worship, which is one of the biggest barriers to our happiness and success.

My Real Story (AKA, I’m Human. Oh, Well. [Sad Trombone])

Let me tell you another quick story.

(Spoiler alert: It’s about me again, and it’s not nearly as awesome.)

I was an only child with a borderline creepy obsession with technology, security, and other people. In fact, my mom remembers me opening up the backs of radios and poking around in them for hours at a time. (Yeah, I was alone a lot.)

I did well in school, I was good at academics, but I didn’t exactly fit into my high school, so I applied for an exchange program to attend my senior year in East Germany. I was stoked to get out of the States and finally have an interesting high school experience.

When I got there, though, I realized I was in over my head. I had basically signed up to attend high school in a foreign country long deprived of resources without even speaking the language. I decided to learn German, to really give it a shot, and I fought every instinct telling me to go home. Which I wanted to do, badly.

I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because I ended up really connecting with my host family, learning a super hard but fascinating language, and realizing how much bigger my life could be if I traveled, even when it was difficult. That first leap is the reason I’ve been to some crazy places, from Serbia to North Korea. Which, I’ll just tell you now, wasn’t all roses either.

College? Fun, sometimes interesting, but not exactly fulfilling. I did well, but the best part was meeting my business partner, AJ, and starting this random podcast about our self-development journey.

Honestly, we didn’t take it too seriously for the first few years. It was a side project that grew out of an obsession I didn’t fully understand: this thing called social dynamics. You know those nerds who think about human relationships in terms of engineering? That was us in the early days. I realized how little I knew about why people do what they do, and I threw myself into every book, theory, and lecture I could find on the topic.

I attended law school, which I chose for all the wrong reasons — it was a logical next step (LNS — to continue our trend of useless acronyms), and a Responsible Thing To Do (“RTTD” maybe?), but I definitely didn’t have a burning passion for the law.

Through a mix of, frankly, dumb luck and smart networking, I ended up as a lawyer on Wall Street, where the attorneys I worked with could see that my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t the best lawyer — in fact, I was probably among the worst at the firm — so I decided to focus on really connecting with our clients, and that’s when I first realized how much value there was in relationship-building. Not that I was a rainmaker or anything, not even close, but for the first time, I saw how my expertise in social dynamics could make me successful.

That didn’t stop me from getting laid off during the recession, though. Honestly, that was a pretty scary chapter — I was an unemployed, mediocre attorney with no job prospects on the horizon, a desire for stability, and no clear backup plan.

But I did have the podcast, and I knew I loved that, so I figured I’d spend my severance investing in the company. And that’s how I started working full-time on The Art of Charm, which I’ve been working on ever since.

I’ve been through every entrepreneurial struggle you can imagine — making payroll, meeting sales targets, negotiating with vendors, dealing with lawyers — and I’ve confronted every entrepreneurial failure possible. I’ve been bored, frustrated, hopeless, and confused. I’ve also watched our company flourish, and I’m insanely proud of what we’ve built at AoC.

The funny part? I’m still confused. I’m still lost. I’m still searching for answers, for insights, for ways to be a better person. I think that’s why I ask all these questions on the podcast — because I’m on this journey too. I think I’m still that kid in the garage opening up radios, trying to figure out how things work. I guess it’s more fun that way.

The Upside of Authentic Storytelling

I’ve shared two versions of My Story with you.

The first is the 60-second highlight reel that most conferences and podcasts would ask me to submit.

The second is a slightly longer, more rambling reflection on the journey I’ve been on. It’s not as tidy or impressive, and it’s still not the full story, but it is far more honest.

And I’m willing to bet the second version made more of an impact.

Why?

Partly because it’s more casual, more self-deprecating, more personal — which speaks to how important it is to tell your story in your own voice.

Partly because it lets you into my way of seeing the world — a sort of intelligent stumbling through places and experiences that led me to realize what I was meant to do.

But mostly because it’s real.

In that version, I’m not implying perfection and editing out failure.

I’m not presenting my success as linear and inevitable when it was actually circuitous and difficult.

I’m not recounting the shiny results of my work while skipping over the drudgery, the pain, and the process of getting there.

I’m still telling you a story, but I’m telling you a good one — which is to say, a meaningful one.

I can do that because I’m not afraid of letting you into the reality of success, and I’m not interested in creating a pretty myth about myself.

Ultimately, our culture’s obsession with myth-making is a projection of our fantasy to be perfect, all-powerful, and flawless. We consume those stories because we want to believe that that fantasy is possible, and we tell those stories in the hopes that other people will believe that fantasy about us. Even if we know it’s a fantasy, we still love indulging in it — just like we love watching a rom-com, even when we know there’s a guaranteed happy ending.

But here’s what happens when we indulge in that kind of myth-making.

  • We rob other people of the value and satisfaction they’d receive from a truly meaningful story. Ironically, we’ve broken the one commandment of storytelling we were hoping to honor, which is to entertain. We’ve given them the equivalent of a movie full of cheap thrills, rather than a compelling journey of action, struggle, and growth. We’ve created an easy myth, rather than a rich story that allows other people to learn, grow, and connect through our own struggle.
  • We discourage other people from pursuing their journeys. By telling our own stories as self-serving myths, we end up suggesting — often without even realizing it — that other people’s experiences should line up with our own. That our successes should be theirs, that their failures shouldn’t look like ours. We’ve basically projected our version of events onto their perception of the world, creating expectations that can be misleading. We also imply that they should start in the same place with the same resources we did, even if our story is largely bullsh*t. Which can be unkind and unhelpful, in addition to being straight-up false!
  • We make it hard for other people to learn from and replicate our success. Why? Because we aren’t actually recounting the gritty tale of our journey step-by-step, but the myth of our eventual triumph in retrospect. The memories we’re sharing, as we’ve discussed, aren’t memories at all, but a film reel spliced together with 20/20 hindsight, rose-colored glasses, and an instinct toward self-preservation — which elides the complicated truth and makes teaching other people through our stories difficult, if not impossible.
  • We compromise our own self-perception and identity. As dangerous as it is to sell these fictions to other people, it’s also dangerous to sell them to ourselves — to believe the self-mythology we’ve created. Armed with that myth, we often feel that we should no longer struggle, suffer, or doubt ourselves, especially as we become more and more successful. We want to preserve the illusion of omnipotence we’ve created. And so we split ourselves into two — the raw human who still struggles, and the projected person who talks about how they succeeded — precisely when we need our identity to be authentic and intact.

Now that we see the upside of authentic storytelling and the costs of myth-making, let’s talk specifically about how to move beyond the easy story into a more compelling narrative.

How to Move Beyond the Myth

The stories we tell are just as seductive to ourselves as they are to other people. Which is why we have to develop a new awareness about the stories we hear and tell, starting with…

1. Recognize a story when you hear one.

Once you realize how many success stories are breezy highlight reels, you’ll start seeing through the glossy version of events that most people peddle. In most cases, just noticing a myth when you hear one is enough to neutralize its power.

So if you notice that a story feels too easy or overwhelmingly positive, trust that there’s a messier and much more complicated story lurking beneath the surface. Even if the person you’re speaking with won’t share that version, it’s important to know that it’s there — because every human being has one.

Next, ask yourself what purpose the myth is serving. Almost always, a convenient success story is designed to to sell, market, influence, or seduce. If you’re hearing that sort of story at a conference, in an interview, at a recruiting event, on a date or in a pitch meeting, then you can assume that there’s an element of marketing at play. This benign form of propaganda is so prevalent because it works.

This is the first step in freeing yourself from the pull of a seductive myth — simply seeing it for what it is, identifying its purpose, and trusting that this glossy version of events isn’t the entire story.

2. Dig for a deeper story.

Whenever someone tells me their story, my first instinct is to probe for the richer, more complex story behind it. Asking the right questions will help you really understand someone’s journey, and invite the other person break out of the tendency to self-mythologize.

For example, when I hear someone talk about a massive success — say, selling a company, closing a major deal, or winning a huge award — I often ask about the process and emotional experience behind that achievement. “That must have been hard,” I’ll say, or “How did you make that happen?” or “Was that intense?” These questions are an excellent (and nonthreatening) way of getting to the story behind the highlight reel. Almost always, people will respond to my curiosity with a revelation: that it was hard, that they did have to struggle, that it was intense.

Which opens up a whole new conversation — one that is way more interesting than the original myth. “So how’d you deal with the difficulty?” “Did you ever want to give up?” “If you could go back and do it again, how would you handle it?” Just like that, you’re having an authentic exchange.

By asking those questions, you’ll glean information that is a) truer, b) far more useful, and c) more emotionally significant. You’ll penetrate to the humanity in people’s stories, uncovering the flaws, mistakes, and missteps that make people interesting — that make their stories interesting!

In the process, you’ve also moved the other person from the world of mythology to the space of authentic connection. Interestingly, these questions also create empathy and rapport, which are all part of the same overall goal: to really connect with someone beyond their story.

3. Notice when you’re telling a mythical story.

As important as it is to recognize other people’s mythology, it’s even more important to recognize our own.

So if you catch yourself in conversation exclusively focusing on your accomplishments, listing off your assets, or glossing over the struggle — which is a very human and tempting thing to do — take a moment and check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you’re self-mythologizing, and why. Is it to impress the other person? To reassure yourself? To avoid the discomfort of being honest? If you catch yourself telling an easy narrative, then consider changing the way you tell your story.

At a friend’s dinner party recently, I caught myself giving someone my highlight reel — a version of the Jordan myth I shared with you in the opening. The moment I noticed it, I start laughing and said, “I just realized how easy I’m making all of this sound. Honestly, the work I’ve done has been hard and confusing, and I’m still trying to figure it all out.” I really meant that, and because I meant it, I could see how that little bit of self-awareness immediately put the other person at ease. He told me how he felt the same way about his current career-path, which led us to his authentic story, and before I knew it, we were having a very relaxed and open conversation — a conversation that literally wasn’t possible a few moments before, when I was stuck in self-mythology mode.

We talk about authenticity here at AoC as a subtractive process, a quality you achieve not by adding things to yourself, but by subtracting the things that get in the way. A personal story designed only to make you look good (and the mythical identity we build around that story) is exactly the sort of thing we have to subtract in order to reveal our authentic selves. Rewriting your own story is one of the most powerful ways to become more authentic, because it’s the window through which you share yourself with other people, and invite other people to share themselves with you.

Bridging the Two Stories Together

When we get real in our stories, something interesting happens. We destroy the fantasy of self-mythology. We instantly become more human. We ditch the projections other people place on us, and we embrace the shame and discomfort of being human beings who are constantly in process. I see it in the emails I get from listeners every week and in the testimonials we receive from our alumni — people who write in just to say thank you for talking about the struggle, for not pretending that life isn’t strange, intimidating, and confusing.

Most important, by talking about ourselves in a more honest way, we open a space for a real relationship to take place. We stop offering other people our Hero Story as a proxy for ourselves, and we start actually offering them ourselves. That kind of connection — professional, romantic, platonic, familial — engenders real authenticity and trust.

Does this mean we should ditch our positive stories altogether? Does this mean we can’t sell ourselves or pitch our companies? Should we go to job interviews and first dates as a bleeding, messy, incoherent patchwork of embarrassing facts?

Definitely not.

As you saw in my more honest personal story, it’s possible to talk about yourself without glossing over the bad or over-hyping the good. That’s what honest storytelling is all about: sharing the full range of your experience. Interestingly, capturing both the good and the bad, the impressive and the embarrassing, has a way of ultimately making you look better. Why? Because your listener recognizes that you’re not editing out the inconvenient, that your story isn’t just a piece of marketing, that there’s a real human being in this story. The “bad” makes the “good” look even better, and the “good” gives the “bad” even more meaning.

So we shouldn’t stop telling stories. Instead, we should become more conscious storytellers. We should recognize when people present an idealized version of themselves, and we should pause when we catch ourselves wanting to present that idealized version right back. That way we can guard ourselves against the dangerous kind of myth-making, and commit to becoming more authentic and vulnerable in our everyday lives. That way, we can sell, market, and make an impression as a full human being, rather than as an idealized projection of the infallible hero we’ll never really be — which turns out to be way more effective.

That’s how we capture the benefits of self-mythology without sacrificing any of the authenticity.

That’s how we share our humanity and still make a positive impression.

That’s how we avoid the most dangerous story, and start telling the best one.

This toolbox episode has been adapted from an original piece by Gabriel Mizrahi. Drop him a line at Twitter if you enjoyed it, and go visit his website here if you’d like to read more of his work.

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 924 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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